The Cajun and Creole dishes that are the cornerstones of New Orleans cooking — gumbos, etouffees, jambalayas — are often delicious yet not uniformly so, especially when duplicated by non-Louisiana chefs. How come? There are as many ways to make them as there are people who try.
The same goes for the town's traditional seafood concoctions — featuring shrimp, crab, speckled trout, pompano and other local delicacies — that are so satisfying when sampled in one of the Crescent City's many fine restaurants. Often, something gets lost in translation when these dishes are reproduced in kitchens outside of South Louisiana.
What causes the disconnect? Part of the reason is that recreating the indigenous New Orleans style of cooking in a casual or fine dining setting is trickier than you might think. Many chefs try, but the results often don't match the taste memories their customers brought back from their trip to New Orleans.
Which is where Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook (Vissi d'Arte Books; $45) comes in. Brennan is a distinguished restaurateur, not a chef, but that's a plus in this case. His book collects standardized versions of the iconic dishes that make up the New Orleans restaurant canon, each of them perfected after years of fine-tuning in one or more of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group's eateries.
There are four such operations: Ralph's on the Park, his newest; Red Fish Grill; the Italian-Creole Bacco; and Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen in the Downtown Disney District at the Disneyland Resort in Southern California. The 170 recipes included in this book have been made thousands of times by a rotating cast of line cooks over the years. As a result, they are as can't-miss and as tasty as they can be.
Brennan's not giving us time-warp cuisine, either. There are plenty of contemporary takes on seafood recipes mixed in with the classics.
“While each of our restaurants has a strong New Orleans character, they're experiencing the same trends that have been in force nationally for some years,” Brennan writes. “This cookbook recognized those changes with freewheeling recipes that expand the horizons of New Orleans' many-faceted cuisine. At the same time, it celebrates the kind of dishes that have passed the test of time, the ones that promise to always invigorate the food the city cooks and eats.”
The clearly written instructions that accompany the recipes are an additional plus for this 432-page book. Each step-by-step description reads like the sort of thing a restaurant would give to a new back-of-the-house employee to follow during his or her first weeks on the job, lest they screw up a signature dish. And the first chapter alone, “A Seafood Cook's Manual,” does such a good job of explaining the basics of fish selection and handling that it elevates the whole works to near-encyclopedia status.
Let's face it. You can't beat the track record posted by any branch of the Brennan family. And you definitely can't go wrong doing at least a few of your seafood dishes the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group way. This book tells you exactly how to make many of the dishes that enabled Ralph Brennan to create his empire. Give it a long look.